In our present age of ubiquitous information, it’s easy to search for the biography of a celebrity or politician, since history is better preserved now than ever before. Alas, it was not always this way. The facts about many historical figures weren’t written down until years — sometimes decades or even centuries — after they allegedly lived. Given this amount of time, the evidence of the individual’s existence itself may have completely deteriorated, aside from the stories themselves. With this in mind, below are some examples of famous people whose names you will recognize but may never have existed at all, at least in their popular form.
Homer is the Greek poet who wrote two of the books that your English teacher forced you to read in high school — the mythological epics The Iliad and The Odyssey. Despite the popularity and importance of these epics, their author remains shrouded in mystery. For one thing, Homer almost certainly wasn’t the originator of these tales, which likely preceded Homer by about 1,000 years. He was simply the first to write them down. As for the poet himself, some say Homer was blind, while at least one author argues that Homer was actually a woman.
Some historians believe that Homer was not a single person, but rather a group of Greek scholars. Such inquiries about the poet’s identify and existence are famously called Homeric Questions. In the end, we will probably never know the answer to this question, but the legacy of Homer’s works will continue, both in the nuclear plant and beyond.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock — a heavy one — then you’re probably familiar with the Arthurian legend. Even if you haven’t read the stories, you’ve likely seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least once in college. In any case, the British king is said to have claimed the sword, Excalibur, from the Lady of the Lake and found the aforementioned Cup of Christ. These fantastical stories are clearly a mishmash of folklore, but was the Arthur of legend based on a real man? The first tales of Arthur appeared in the ninth century, and chronicle his battle against the invading Saxon armies. Its therefore likely that the individual(s) — if they existed — who served as the basis for Arthur lived sometime before then.
Some historians suggest the Roman military commander Lucius Artorius Castus as a possible candidate. The King Arthur movie from 2004, starring Clive Owen, follows this line of reasoning and depicts him as a Roman soldier. Others suggest Riothamus, king of the Britons during the fifth-century. In any case, we’re reasonably confident that the historical Arthur — whoever he was — didn’t have easy access to two hollowed-out coconuts.
The legendary English folk hero Robin Hood is well-known for robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, residing in Sherwood Forest with his gang of outlaws, and wooing Maid Marian. The stories are certainly fictitious, but was Robin Hood a real person, or simply based on one? It’s impossible to say if any one individual inspired the legend’s creation with any certainty. The stories are either totally invented, or are a combination of elements taken from different historical sources.
Identifying a single person as the basis for the famous outlaw becomes even more difficult given that, as the stories began to grow in popularity in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, random English outlaws began to call themselves Robin Hood. Nevertheless, some historians speculate that Robin Hood was based, in part anyway, on nobleman Fulk FitzWarin, who rebelled against King John (one of Robin Hood’s foes). FitzWarin’s life was later turned into its own medieval tale, Fouke le Fitz Waryn, which holds some similarities to the Robin Hood stories. If he was the basis, then a name change was a good decision. The name Fulk FitzWarin doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of villains.
William Tell is a Swiss folk hero best known for child endangerment. Tell allegedly lived in Switzerland during the early fourteenth century, when the Hapsburg dynasty of Austria ruled the land. As the story goes, an Austrian official placed a hat on a pole in city of Altdorf and commanded every Swiss subject to remove their caps as they passed by it. One day Tell, a local peasant who was accompanied by his son, refused to do so. In response, the Austrians forced Tell to shoot an apple off his son’s head at 120 paces, or face execution. Tell loaded his crossbow and skillfully shot the apple. He then went on to lead a small revolt against the Austrians — presumably after buying his son some new pants.
Tell is essentially the Swiss version of Robin Hood and, much like the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, he probably never existed. The apple story is extremely similar to a Viking folktale, which most likely was imported to Switzerland at some point, and used by Swiss patriots as a rallying cry against their Austrian rulers.
Jesus of Nazareth
The consensus among historians is that the religious figure, Jesus of Nazareth (i.e., Jesus Christ) was probably a real person, yet some doubt exists. A recent poll in England, for example, found that roughly 40 percent of that country’s population did not believe Jesus was a real person. If he was, Jesus was likely a man who lived during the Roman occupation of present-day Israel. He was a Jewish preacher with followers, whom the Roman authorities eventually executed. Whether he performed all of the divine feats depicted in the Bible is open to your individual religious interpretation. Nevertheless, whether he was divine, an ordinary man, or a mythological figure, it is fair to say that Jesus Christ is among the most influential individuals to ever live.